With approximately 18,000 species of birds on our planet, the birder has quite a challenge distinguishing one from the other at times mainly due to what is called “hidden avian diversity.” 

Where does the novice birder start? 

Feeling rather peckish after paying a few bills, I felt like beaking off a bit.  I thought I’d nose around and take a closer look at shapes of beaks and bills that help the birder identify the feathered friends across Alberta.

Generally speaking, what a bird or wildfowl eats is directly related to the shape and size of its bill or beak. Functionality, refined over time, results in the perfect attachment to make the most efficient device for the consumption of food. Some birds are generalists capable of using different techniques to obtain food.  Others are specialists, where the beak is adapted for a specific function. That really helps to identify the bird.

Granivourous birds, like American goldfinches and sparrows, have short, robust beaks that end in a conical shape, easing the work of cracking open seeds. Insectivorous birds like swallows catch insects while in flight, hHence the beak is short, wide and flat. 

If an insectivore catches insects on the ground, their beaks tend to be short, straight and thin, like that of a robin. Piscivorous birds feed on fish they catch by diving into the water. Beaks for this style of food capture tend to be strong, large and have a curved tip with serrated ridges to prevent the prey from escaping. Seagulls and pelicans have such a beak. 

Nectarivorous birds feed on nectar by inserting their beaks into flowers. Their long, thin beaks can be uniquely shaped for the kind of flower the bird feeds upon. Alberta’s hummingbirds are our best example.

Ducks and swans have wide, flat bills, designed in part to filter water and extract the nutrients.  Woodpeckers need a thick, strong bill to hammer through decaying wood and capture those grubs and insects inside. 

Other species of birds like avocets, and black-necked stilts need to probe deeply into the ooze to find sustenance. Those long, slim beaks are perfectly designed to succeed in that task. Carnivorous raptors, true flesh-eaters, need a beak that can tear apart the carcass of a mammal, other bird or fish. Eagles, merlins and ospreys are well equipped.

Additional uses of beaks include being a tool to hold and manipulate, for example, nesting materials.  Bills are also used to preen feathers—to clean and straighten them out, especially during moulting.  Bills and beaks are also used to sing, act as an implement of seduction, feed the young, and if necessary be used as a weapon to defend offspring or defend nesting territory. On hot days, beaks are even used to regulate body temperature!

So when out on your walk in a park or watching in your backyard, a peek at the beak can be a part of your strategy in helping identify the bird species that has helped make your day!

An amazing fishing team.  ELAINE CASSIDY
Avocet’s long, probing and filtering bill.  ELAINE CASSIDY
Carnivorous Eagle beak.  ELAINE CASSIDY
Filter beak of Shoveler.  ELAINE CASSIDY
Nectarvorous bill of the Ruby Throated Hummingbird.  ELAINE CASSIDY
Conical general beak of the White Crowned Sparrow.  ELAINE CASSIDY